What is "natural"?

This is a debate on the matter with some interesting viewpoints

What does the term “natural” really mean? It certainly seems to be of great significance to sellers of shampoos and so-called “organic” produce. I am sure all of you have heard somewhere, in an advert or a particularly dense friend that if something is “natural” then it must be “good for you.” The environmentalist movement would have us believe that anything humans have done since “coming out of the cave” as it were, has been “unnatural” and therefore some kind of affront against nature and our own “natural human state”.

On some level I can’t help but see this kind of terminology come about as a latent manifestation of the Biblical sense of man and nature being separate. Since man is somehow “above” nature or even at “war” with nature does that mean that the way of life most modern humans know isn’t the natural result of our own natural tendencies? It is well to recognise that the mindset of man against nature has been responsible for a great deal of environmental damage and loss to biodiversity, but it is just as natural for us to understand the repercussions of our actions and try a different tact.

I guess my issue is more with the first paragraph than the second. The overuse and duplicitous use of the word “natural” bothers me more than in the second paragraph where no matter what you call it, it is still a problem. The word natural has allowed all sorts of herbal remedies to be sold in the US without any real science behind the claims, proper dosage amounts, or analysis of the active ingredients. You can find ephedra based pills, a very close relative to speed molecularly, in any nieghborhood gas station here as a “pick me up.” An active ingedient is an active ingredient, no matter how “natural” the source is.

Any thoughts"

I’ve thought about this before myself. If humans build a dam it is unnatural. If a beaver does it then it is natural. Huh? Humans are a part of nature so how can anything we do not be natural?

DaLovin’ Dj

I had a boyfriend in college who debated this with his roommate. His argument was much like yours, dj, in that he argued that everything we do comes “from nature” so it’s all natural.

I think “unnatural” or “not natural” or “man-made” has to do with degrees of removal from it’s natural state. How much processing is involved, and/or any chemical change that has occurred with the interference of humans for reasons other than survival.

Wood found lying on the forest floor is natural. grinding it into sawdust and mixing it with glue to make particle board, isn’t natural.

Anything that wouldn’t occur without the purposeful interference of humans isn’t natural.

We as human beings are the only ones to which the term and concept of “natural” matter (inasmuch as animals really aren’t into concepts)

Probably a matter of degrees. Particle board is more natural than plastics. Marijuana is more natural than extacy, etc…

Even if we chopped it down?

Even though this is not your main interest, I have to comment on the fact that Joseph Campbell says that what you call the “war with nature” is what sets the Judo-Christian-Islamic religions apart from all other myths. He was not critical of science, but he thought that we needed to recognize that we are part of nature, not in charge of it.

As to your main interest, I saw a piece today about a group that has started a farm for orphan animals. They oppose the idea of turkey for Thanksgiving, so they have set it up so people can feed their turkeys on Thanksgiving (reverse thinking). What repelled me was when the camera gave a close-up it was obvious that the turkey’s upper bill had been clipped off (to prevent them hurting the visitors?). Also they were white turkeys, not those that you see in the wild. Another story told of 5 wild turkeys that have taken up living in a small town in the midwest. The citizens have decided they will be protected and not eaten for Thanksgiving. To me the people in that town have a better understanding of natural than the group on the farm.

Like most terms, meaning depends upon context.

Often, “natural” is used to descriminate between works of mankind and all else that we encounter. Certainly, there can be a level of hubris–separation/domination of all other facets of nature implied in this usage. However, it can be applied neutrally as nothing more than an antonym for “man-made”.

I do think there are some reasons to stress that the natural/man-made distinction is simply one of association, not heirarchy. Too often, we get carried away with the separating (and often negative) connotations of the terms.

A skyscraper is no more “unnatural” than a termite mound.

That is not a particularly useful definition.

Viewing people as separate from nature is not particularly usefull either.

DJ -

When humans build (some) dams, they back up rivers and destroy entire environments (the sister area to Yosemite comes to mind, though I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the valley - clearly early onset Alzheimer’s).

When a beaver builds a dam, it has some environmental reprecussions, but not to the extent that, say, Hoover Dam probably had.

I believe this is the distinction people are trying to make; the amount of impact on the rest of the earth/other species/whatever, rather than the simple act of being tool-using creatures and having an impact on our environment (most creatures, after all, have some impact on their environment. Some positive, some negative). YMMV, of course.

I understand what you are saying, but for the purpose of debate, we have to be fair in applying this point equally.

If a company builds a factory with a visible smokestack in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, there will probably be relatively small ecological disruption if environmental laws are followed. Let Mt. St Helens or another major volcano erupt however and the entire world’s ecosystem can potentially be affected. The earth’s environment does not move along slowly and peacefully until the evil humans do something to disrupt it. There are “natural” threats or disruptions as well and the earth always seems to rebound.

I see some very interesting points here…



Isn’t there a fundamental difference considering the fact that the volcano can have no conception of the effects of its actions (and likely wouldnt care if it did) while humans concievably can (and should)? I don’t think you would take issue with this as I am not really trying to contradict you.
You are right about the earth always being able to rebound, we couldn’t destroy the planet or all life on it even if we wanted to. However we could make it inhospitable to human life as we know it.



Even so, is the language of “natural” vs. “unnatural” really helpful if we are trying to make distinctions about the scale of impacts?



Which is exactly the sort of thing an incomplete understanding (most peoples) of the terminology would permit - “Unnatural” things come from humans because we do not come from nature.



This is likely key, both of these terms are loaded with connotations which do not necessarily have any bearing on the relative value of the object or action being described.



The “for reasons other than survival” bit gives me pause. If we manufacture a particular drug to give to a person who is sick and wouldn’t survive otherwise is that “natural”?
What I see coming out of this definition is the equivalence of the tools man has constructed with unnatural because we have somehow changed the raw materials. And yet I say that organisms process raw materials, organic or inorganic, all the time as part of the process of continuing life. Toolmaking is not confined to humans either, some (non-human) primates will construct crude tools and certains species of crow have displayed tool making abilities that would blow any monkey away. Should those actions be considered “unnatural”?



That is probably where I picked that up from, I quite enjoy Campbell. Interestingly enough, one need not follow the Judo-Christian-Islamic faith in order to attempt to “overcome” the environment.

Sure it is if the point of natural is to differentiate between man made things and non man made things. Which is many times what people mean when they say something is natural.

Interesting, Azael. I took a run at trying to define nature for myself last year in this thread. The results were not particularly satisfactory. The thread which started me thinking about it can be found here.

This sounds like one of the papers I had to write for my freshman environmental studies class :).

I consider myself an environmentalist, but I don’t think “natural” should be a value-laden word. For starters, it has two mutually-exclusive meanings: either it means things that don’t involve humans, or it means things existing in the cosmos.

Even if we stick to the “no humans!” definition, we’re on shaky ground. Leukemia is perfectly natural; flute music unnatural. Only the tetched consider leukemia superior to flute music.

However, it is useful to remember that humans seem to be the only force in the cosmos capable of consciously effecting widescale change in their environment. We’re damned good at it, and have been doing it for millennia. Since the advent of the industrial revolution, we’ve been doing it very rapidly. I believe that recent human-caused environmental changes have been more dramatic that almost all other previous environmental changes (certain astronomical events, of course, excepted).

Since we’re capable of making conscious wide-scale changes to our surroundings, we’re equally capable of consciously not making wide-scale changes to our surroundings. It is our role in the natural world to decide what changes, if any, we’re willing to make.